Douglas County leaders approve 2022 budget that increases property tax rate, social service funding, county staff’s pay

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World File Photo

The Douglas County Courthouse at 1100 Massachusetts St., which houses the county government, is shown on Sept. 15, 2018.

Douglas County leaders have approved a budget for 2022 that includes a property tax rate increase, more than $1 million in additional social service funding, and pay raises for county employees.

The Douglas County Commission voted unanimously as part of its meeting Wednesday to approve the 2022 budget. The $148.5 million budget increases the property tax rate by about 1 mill, which would result in the owner of a $200,000 home paying about $23 more a year in taxes. During the budget hearing, some county residents spoke against the tax increase.

Following the public comments, Commissioner Patrick Kelly said that the commission’s biggest responsibility is setting the budget and weighing requests for additional county services against the burden put on county taxpayers.

“Our job is to respond and find that balance in between the services requested and the tax burden,” Kelly said.

Kelly said he agreed with commenters who said it was a difficult time to raise taxes, but that in addition to requests for additional services, the county had to account for increased expenses due to the renegotiation of the county’s funding agreement with the City of Lawrence for the jointly operated fire and medical department.

The renegotiated agreement, which the city has said more evenly distributes the costs between the two governments, increases the county’s share of the cost by about $2.6 million. The county’s budget also includes other additions, such as an additional $1.2 million in social service funding, $1.1 million in pay increases for county employees and funding for several new positions.

Four people spoke during the budget hearing and urged commissioners to hold off on the property tax rate increase. The commenters noted that apart from the county’s mill levy increase, increases in home valuations already would increase what they had to pay in taxes and that prices on goods such as groceries had been going up, all while many were not seeing an increase in their income.

“There is such a squeeze going on that you ought to consider perhaps postponing or deferring some of the proposed spending,” said Eudora resident Peter Grassl.

The budget includes an additional $1.2 million in social service funding for a variety of nonprofits, including about $584,000 for Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center for enhanced homeless services and to create a mobile access team; $326,000 for a mobile crisis call center through Kansas Suicide Prevention Headquarters; about $114,000 to the Lawrence Humane Society for enhanced animal code enforcement; and $62,000 to expand re-entry housing services provided by Artists Helping the Homeless, among other additions.

Commission Vice Chair Shannon Reid said the county received both new and increased social service funding requests as part of the 2022 budget process, and there was a lot of discussion during the commission’s budget hearings in July about finding the right balance and creating a budget that represented the county’s values.

“So we have been investing our taxpayer dollars into the values that we think Douglas County represents, and I think that this budget reflects that after the tough conversations we had last month,” Reid said.

The budget also includes $1.1 million for cost-of-living, merit and longevity pay increases for county employees, as well as $100,000 for an employee compensation study.

Commission Chair Shannon Portillo said that even in the face of the $2.6 million increase for fire and medical services, the approximately 1 mill property tax increase — a mill of property tax generates about $1.17 million of revenue — represented a smaller increase in spending while also funding important efforts.

Regarding employee raises, Portillo said the county already knows that staff is “severely underpaid” and that she hoped the initial raise and upcoming compensation study would help retain quality employees.

“I think that we’re going to need to think through this long term, of how to make sure we’re paying competitive salaries so we have the very best services here in Douglas County,” Portillo said.

In other business, the commission:

• Approved a $43,750 contract addition to extend a study investigating the racial breakdown of traffic stops and other law enforcement contact in the county through the end of the year. The additional cost will be divided among the five law enforcement agencies participating in the study.

• Approved a $500,000 grant agreement for a “housing first” pilot program that would seek to quickly place people experiencing homelessness in their own housing while also providing them support services.

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